Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

More Evil Than Enron

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 5, 2002 --  

The torrential outrage that has developed against Enron's management has been hijacked by campaign finance reform activists to propel their misguided agenda. Democratic crusaders, led by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California), have initiated a vicious campaign against the Bush administration and other politicians who received contributions from a company that has become synonymous with evil. Waxman and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) helped initiate a Government Accounting Office lawsuit to retrieve documents related to Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force.1 Waxman and his allies are hoping to find that the documents contain a nice juicy list of Enron villains. And since they can't find any greater impropriety, their accusation du jour has become that the Vice President rewarded Enron with "access."

How shocking! The revelation that politicians give special access to their campaign contributors is almost earth shattering enough to merit an eye roll. In reality, it's so common that America's public officials have made a science out of it. The only thing different in this case is Enron. Enron's executives are perceived as so evil in the public mind (and understandably so), that any special relationships with politicians could be politically damaging.

The problem with this scandal is that there are no real cases of politicians doing special favors for Enron. And even if there were, it's preposterous to suggest that any politician had a clue about the company's corrupt practices. That was the whole problem -- nobody other than a very few insiders knew about the company's accounting excesses. Hence, the worst thing Waxman can hope to prove is that the Vice President did the same thing as every other politician, but happened to do it with an extremely unpopular company. This is nothing more than a petty case of trying to assign guilt by association.

The real outrage here is that there are plenty of actual cases of egregious political favors given to truly evil campaign donors. And plenty of these cases actually result in policies that hurt the people of the United States. Archer Daniels Midland, the world's largest Ethanol producer, gave over $400,000 to Republicans during the 2000 campaign.2 It was rewarded last year with regulatory changes that surged ethanol subsidies to an estimated $1 billion per year.3 What an incredible return on investment!

Mention boring old ADM, however, and you can almost watch as peoples' eyes glaze over. These real-life cases of campaign corruption don't have the emotional impact of Enron that has everybody worked into a froth.

Of course, Enron can certainly be seen as evil in its own way. By all accounts, its executives betrayed their duty at its deepest level. They intentionally deceived the shareholders who own the company in a manner that allowed them to enrich themselves. Their unethical -- if not illegal -- behavior destroyed the very company that they were paid to lead. The consequences for shareholders and employees have been tragic, and completely justify the public's furor toward Enron's management.

However evil, these practices have absolutely nothing to do with campaign finance reform. I have yet to hear anybody even suggest that Enron received a political payoff in return for a donation. And even if such a case eventually comes to light, it is inconceivable that it could ever rival the enormous cases of donation-bought favoritism that ADM has been openly receiving for decades.

Waxman and his allies want to misdirect the public outrage against Enron to codify their naive ideas about reforming campaign finances. If they have their way, campaign donations will be further limited in the same manner as the 1970s-era restrictions that gave us the muddled mess we have today. True reform has nothing to do with restrictions on giving, and everything to do with full disclosure and limits on arbitrary power. Unless we get beyond Enron to focus on the true cases of political corruption, there is little hope for meaningful reform.

Related web columns:

ADM: Supervillain to the World, September 22, 1998


1. Washington Post, Not Worth Fighting About, January 31, 2002

2. Center for Responsive Politics, Soft Money Donor Database, February 2002

3. Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayer Group Blasts Administration on Ethanol Decision, June 12, 2001